Malcolm Dunn, regular ConservativeHome contributor, reflects on last night's 'Built To Last' roadshow event.
Last night around 100 Conservative party workers, activists and CH bloggers gathered in a compact little venue in Hammersmith for the first of what I understand will be a number of debates around the Built To Last statement of values and principles. David Cameron was there to both explain the reasons for BtL and take questions from the audience.
He began by explaining why he feels it is essential that the public is made aware of this statement and that the party both understands and accepts it. He made particular reference to those points which dealt with economic competitiveness, economic stability, the need to be representative of a modern Britain and finally the environment.
Our esteemed Editor, Tim Montgomerie, was then asked to make a short presentation of the ConservativeHome poll on BtL. He was able to tell David Cameron that according to the poll BtL will be passed by the membership with a very large majority. He warned that the ballot had a Soviet feel to it and that turnout might be derisory if members aren't given meaningful options to amend BtL. Tim did point out however that if members were given a choice between 'sharing the proceeds of growth' and a clearer commitment to economy-boosting tax relief interest in the process might increase. Cameron was emphatic that this wouldn't happen and explained that people needed to be reassured that their mortgages wouldn't rise and that their current standard of living would not fall. He was both plausible and passionate in defence of 'sharing the proceeds of growth'.
As Conservative Home was co sponsor of the event two bloggers (Oberon Houston and I) had been asked to ask probing questions about two of the BtL statements.
Mine was the statement: 'We are an open and inclusive party. We will act to ensure that our party at every level is representative of modern Britain'. I chose to question this saying that I believed it was image politics. Rather than have this imposed from the centre, it would be more sensible to trust local associations to make the right choices as to who should represent the Conservative party. David Cameron replied that having more women was essential not just for how we look to the outside world but also how we govern. He also made the familiar refrain that we have only 5 more women MPs than we had in 1932 and that painful as it was that has to change.
I confess that whilst I expected this answer I was a little disappointed with it. The imposition of candidates from the centre was pushed through with no debate and throughout the evening there was huge criticism of the Labour Party for its attempt to micromanage everything and adopt a top down approach. Isn't the imposition of priority lists etc exactly the same thing? Sadly there was little opportunity for follow ups but a young Asian woman from the East end made the very interesting observation that she had been very welcome into the Conservative party and was doing fine without any positive discrimination. Would people now think that she could only do well because of it?
Oberon was next. He looked at the statement 'We will improve the NHS and schools for eveyone, not help a few to opt out. But public services paid for by the state don't have to be run by the state.' Oberon asked Cameron to look at the political implications of this. Mr Cameron explained why it was absolutely essential that the public know that we intend to raise standards for EVERYONE which was why patients passport have been abandoned as they could not help all people. He then gave us a number of examples where providers outside the NHS could help provide better services. He also made the welcome point that money isn't everything and there was a need to restore discipline in schools.
Sadly the meeting then went off topic and Cameron had to deal with several questions that had little to do with Built To Last including noise pollution from aircraft, building more affordable housing and how to ensure that money to education actually reached the schools. Cameron answered each question skilfully and well but with an absence of detail on what he would do. This is understandable but as the months pass some difficult decisions may have to be made.
The meeting then drew to a close after little more than an hour. Cameron admitted that the time devoted to this had not been sufficient which was absolutely true.
At these events in future I would recommend that much more time is devoted to debate, that the events should be smaller with no TV cameras to stimulate genuine discussion and that off topic questions are banned.
Cameron came across as highly personable, extremely articulate and excellent at giving answers that relate to his personal experience. He does need to update some of his anecdotes and some of the jokes are getting old. I must have heard that he thinks Frank Dobson is a dinosaur quip half a dozen times now!
On a more serious point I would also hope that more thought is given to
whether positive discrimination (or 'positive action' as Cameron
prefers to call it) is in the best interests of the party or the
RELATED LINK: Francis Maude asks ConservativeHome readers for their views on Built to Last.